Tag Archives: Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

Wichita city council campaign finance reform

Some citizen activists and Wichita city council members believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.

On December 1, 2015 the Wichita City Council considered an ordinance regarding campaign finance for city elections. A Wichita Eagle article on the topic started with: “A proposed change in city ordinance would allow corporations, labor unions and political action committees to have a greater influence on Wichita politics. For years, city elections have remained insulated from the power of those groups, unlike national and state elections, because Wichita ordinance specifically forbids them from contributing to local campaigns.” 1

The city believed the proposed action was necessary to comply with recent court rulings. Under the proposed ordinance — which was passed by the council — corporations, labor unions, and political action committees would be able to make a single campaign contribution per election cycle of up to $500, the same limit as for individuals.

During the council meeting, citizens testified as to the terrible consequences should the council pass this ordinance. Here are a few excerpts taken from the minutes of the meeting:

  • “Citizens United has unleashed Frankenstein monsters purchasing our government with their pocket money.”

  • “Stated corruption and conflicts of interest have become institutionalized and what City legal counsel suggests will sell the Council and the City of Wichita to the highest bidder.”

  • “Stated according to a lengthy report last week, by the Pew Research Center, across party lines people are distrustful and concerned about big money in politics.”

  • “Stated big money does not donate, it invests and buys democracy. Stated she is asking the City Council to keep big money out of the City Council elections.”

  • “Allowing big money into City elections is a concern.”

  • “Stated the City has been independent and has a freedom from influence that the state and the nation do not enjoy. Stated you will then be under the thumb of people who want to control you. which is scary to those of them who are highly opposed to this situation and hopes that the Council will think of them and how this vote will benefit them.”

  • “Stated the League [of Women Voters] has studied campaign finance over the years at all three levels. Stated they are currently involved in the study of money and politics and their position currently reads that they want to improve the methods of financing political campaigns in order to ensure the public’s right to know and combat corruption and undue influence, which is their biggest concern.”

In its reporting after the meeting, the Eagle reported more concern: 2

But those who oppose the measure said they were concerned about opening up local elections to party-affiliated groups like PACs and about transparency since PACs do not have to report their individual donors.

“Individuals should decide elections, not corporations,” Frye said.

Several members of the public spoke against the changes.

“People in the shadows are going to be pulling your strings,” said Russ Pataki.

“It’s very worrisome what big money has done to state and national politics. The city has been independent (of that),” said Lynn Stephan to the council before the vote. “You have a freedom from influence the state and nation don’t enjoy.”

So, people are concerned about the corrupting influence of political campaign donations from corporations and political action committees. Citizens — and the Wichita Eagle — believe that currently the city council is free from this influence.

But the reality of city council campaign financing is different.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
In my testimony at the December 1 meeting, I explained that there are a few corporations that stack campaign contributions in a way that circumvents prohibitions. Although I did not mention it at the meeting, sometimes campaign finance reporting laws allowed this to happen without disclosure until after relevant action had happened. To illustrate, here is a timeline of events involving just one company and its campaign contributions.

2008 and 2009
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $3,000.

2010 and 2011
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Carl Brewer campaign, totaling $4,000. Brewer was Wichita mayor running for re-election in 2011.

Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign, totaling $4,000.

2012
The City of Wichita is preparing to build a new airport terminal with a cost of around $100 million. Key Construction and Dondlinger and Sons Construction are two bidders. The contract is controversial. Dondlinger submitted a lower bid than Key, but it was alleged that Dondlinger’s bid did not meet certain requirements.

January 24, 2012
Executives of Key Construction and their spouses make six contributions to the James Clendenin campaign, totaling $3,000.

Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
April 2, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission, totaling $4,000. At the time, Longwell was a Wichita city council member.

April 17, 2012
On this day and the next, executives of Key Construction and their spouses make eight contributions to the Lavonta Williams campaign, totaling $4,000.

July 16, 2012
An executive of a Michigan construction company and his wife contribute $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for county commission. The company, Walbridge, is partnering with Wichita-based Key Construction to bid on the Wichita airport terminal contract.3

July 17, 2012
The Wichita city council votes in favor of Key Construction and Walbridge on a dispute over the airport terminal contract, adding over $2 million to its cost. Brewer, Longwell, Williams, and Clendenin participated in the meeting and voted. City documents state the job of the council this day was to determine whether the staff who made the decision in favor of Key Construction “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.”4

July 20, 2012
An additional $2,250 in contributions from Walbridge executives to the Jeff Longwell campaign for Sedgwick County Commission campaign is reported.

January 2013
Williams and Clendenin file campaign finance reports for the calendar year 2012. This is the first opportunity to learn of the campaign contributions from Key Construction executives and their spouses during 2012. For Williams, the Key Construction-related contributions were the only contributions received for the year. Clendenin received contributions from Key Construction-related individuals and parties associated with one other company during the year.

Is there a pattern? Yes. Key Construction uses its executives and their spouses to stack individual contributions, thereby bypassing the prohibition on campaign contributions from corporations. This has been going on for some time. It is exactly the type of corrupting influence that citizens are worried about. It has been taking place right under their eyes, if they knew how or cared to look. And Key Construction is not the only company to engage in this practice.

Just to summarize: The Wichita city council was charged to decide whether city officials had “abused their discretion or improperly applied the law.” That sounds almost like a judicial responsibility. How much confidence should we have in the justice of a decision if a majority of the judges have taken multiple campaign contributions from executives (and their spouses) of one of the parties?

In some ways, it is understandable that citizens might not be aware of this campaign contribution stacking. The campaign finance reports that council members file don’t contain the name of contributors’ employers. It takes a bit of investigation to uncover the linkage between contributors and the corporations that employ them. For citizens, that might be considered beyond the call of duty. But we should expect better from organizations like the League of Women Voters.

Certainly there is no excuse for the Wichita Eagle to miss or avoid things like this. Even worse, it is disgraceful that the Eagle would deny the problem, as it did in its November 23 article quoted above.

In summary, some citizen activists — most council members, too — believe that a single $500 campaign contribution from a corporation has a corrupting influence. But stacking dozens of the same $500 contributions from executives and spouses of the same corporation? Not a problem.

Political campaign contributions are a form of speech and should not be regulated. What we need are so-called pay-to-play laws, which regulate the linkage between campaign contributions and council member participation in matters that benefit donors.5

Either that, or we need council members with sufficient character to recognize when they should refrain from voting on a matter.


Notes

  1. Ryan. Kelsey. Wichita City Council considers changes to campaign finance, salaries. Wichita Eagle, November 23, 2015. Available at www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article45993895.html.
  2. Ryan, Kelsey. Wichita council votes to change local campaign finance law, raise council salaries. Wichita Eagle, December 1, 2015. Available at www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article47329045.html.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Michigan company involved in disputed Wichita airport contract contributes to Jeff Longwell. Voice for Liberty. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/michigan-company-involved-in-disputed-wichita-airport-contract-contributes-to-jeff-longwell/.
  4. Wichita City Council agenda packet for July 17, 2012.
  5. Weeks, Bob. *Kansas needs pay-to-play laws.” Voice for Liberty. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/kansas-needs-pay-to-play-laws/.

Campaign contribution changes in Wichita

A change to Wichita city election law is likely to have little practical effect.

Currently Wichita city code prohibits certain entities from making campaign contributions to candidates for city council and mayor: “Contributions by political committees as defined by K.S.A. 25-4143, as amended, corporations, partnerships, trusts, labor unions, business groups or other such organizations are expressly prohibited.”

The intent of this law is to limit the influence of businesses and unions on city elections. This week the Wichita City Council will consider striking this portion of city code. The contribution limit of $500 to a candidate for the primary election, and $500 again for the general election, is proposed to be retained.

The practical effect of removing the restriction on campaign contributions from corporations and other entities is likely to be minor. Here’s why.

Last year, lamenting the role of money in national elections, a Wichitan wrote in the Wichita Eagle “Locally, I understand that elections for the Wichita City Council underwent ideal, nonpartisan campaign-finance reform years ago, and that these limits are scrupulously practiced.” This view is naive and doesn’t reflect the reality of current campaign finance practice in Wichita. That is, the stacking of contributions from multiple members of interested groups. For example, a frequent practice is that a business might have several of its executives and their spouses make contributions to a candidate. Because the contributions are made by multiple people, the money is contributed within the campaign finance limitation framework. But the net effect is a lot of money going to a candidate’s campaign in order to advance the interests of the business, thereby circumventing the intent of campaign finance restrictions.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Here’s how a handful of self-interested groups stack campaign contributions.

Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Lavonta Williams from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
In 2012 council members James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run again for their offices in spring 2013. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, two groups of related parties accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents for an entire year. A group associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000 — $4,000 to Williams, and $3,000 to Clendenin. Another group of people associated with movie theater owner Bill Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

Stacked campaign contributions to Jeff Longwell from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions to Jeff Longwell from Key Construction associates. Click for larger version.
In July 2012, as Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell (then a city council member) was running for the Sedgwick County Commission, his campaign received a series of contributions from a Michigan construction company. Several executives and spouses contributed. At the time, Longwell was preparing to vote in a matter involving a contract that the Michigan company and its Wichita partner wanted. That partner was Key Construction, a company that actively stacks contributions to city council candidates.

Longwell has also received stacked contributions from Key Construction.

The casual observer might not detect the stacking of campaign contributions by looking at campaign finance reports. That’s because for city offices, the name of the company a contributor works for isn’t required. Industry and occupation are required, but these aren’t of much help. Further, contribution reports are not filed electronically, so the information is not easy to analyze. Some reports are even submitted using handwriting, and barely legible handwriting at that.

The campaign finance reform that Wichita really needs is quite simple. It’s called a pay-to-play law, and it can be a simple as this: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

In other words, you can make contributions to candidates. You can ask the council to give you contracts and other stuff. But you can’t do both. It’s a reform we need, but our elected officials are not interested.

In Wichita, open records relief may be on the way

A new law in Kansas may provide opportunities for better enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act.

This year the Kansas Legislature passed HB 2256, captioned as “An act concerning public bodies or agencies; relating to the state of Kansas and local units of government; providing certain powers to the attorney general for investigation of violations of the open records act and the open meetings act; attorney general’s open government fund …”

The good part of this law is that it provides additional enforcement options when citizens feel that government agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Law. Before this law, citizens and news organizations had — effectively — two paths for seeking enforcement of KORA. One is private legal action at their own expense. The other is asking the local district attorney for an opinion.

Now the Kansas Attorney General may intervene, as noted in the summary of the new law: “The bill allows the Attorney General to determine, by a preponderance of the evidence after investigation, that a public agency has violated KORA or KOMA, and allows the Attorney General to enter into a consent order with the public agency or issue a finding of violation to the public agency prior to filing an action in district court.”

Not all aspects of this bill are positive, as it also confirms many exceptions to the records act and adds to them. It also adds to the authority of the Attorney General, as have other bills this year.

The City of Wichita has been obstinate in its insistence that the Kansas Open Records Act does not require it to fulfill certain requests for records of spending by its subordinate tax-funded agencies. The city believes that certain exceptions apply and allow the city to keep secret records of the spending of tax funds. The city may be correct in its interpretation of this law.

But the law — even if the city’s interpretation is correct — does not prohibit the city from releasing the records. The city could release the records, if it wanted to.

Fulfilling the legitimate records requests made by myself and others would go a long way towards keeping promises the city and its officials make, even recent promises.

The city’s official page for the mayor holds this: “Mayor Longwell has championed many issues related to improving the community including government accountability, accessibility and transparency …”

During the recent mayoral campaign, Longwell told the Wichita Eagle that he wants taxpayers to know where their money goes: “The city needs to continue to improve providing information online and use other sources that will enable the taxpayers to understand where their money is going.”

In a column in the Wichita Business Journal, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell wrote: “First off, we want City Hall to be open and transparent to everyone in the community.”

Following, from 2012, discussion of problems with the City of Wichita and open government.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

In Wichita, bad governmental behavior excused

A Wichita newspaper op-ed is either ignorant of, or decides to forgive and excuse, bad behavior in Wichita government, particularly by then-mayoral candidate Jeff Longwell.

In a column just before the April 2015 Wichita election, Bill Wilson, managing editor of the Wichita Business Journal, reported on fallacies during the mayoral campaign, fallacies he called “glaring.” 1 But only a juvenile interpretation of the facts surrounding the events could find them fallacious. This is especially troubling since Wilson covered city hall as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.

The first reported fallacy concerns the award of the contract for the new Wichita airport terminal. Jeff Longwell, then a city council member, had received campaign contributions from executives of Key Construction, the local company bidding on the contract. He also received contributions from Walbridge, the Michigan partner of Key. The Walbridge contributions are problematic, as they were made just a few days before the vote. More arrived a few days after Longwell’s vote. 2

In his column Wilson had an explanation as to why the council voted the way it did. That explanation was a matter of dispute that the council had to resolve. But the validity of the explanation is not the point. The point is something larger than any single issue, which is this: The Wichita city council was asked to make decisions regarding whether discretion was abused or laws were improperly applied. It is not proper for a council member to participate in decisions like this while the ink is still wet on campaign contribution checks from a party to the dispute. Jeff Longwell should not have voted on this matter.

For that matter, several other council members should not have voted. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received substantial campaign contributions from Key Construction executives several months before he voted on the airport contract. So too did Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) . In fact, the only contributions Williams received in 2012 were from Key Construction interests. 3

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
Then we have Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Here he’s pictured fishing with his friend Dave Wells of Key Construction. Do you think it is proper for the mayor to have voted in a quasi-judicial role on a matter worth millions to his fishing buddy? How do you feel about the mayor voting for no-bid construction contracts for his friend? Contracts that later were found to be overpriced? 4

In Wichita, city council members receive campaign contributions while participating in a quasi-judicial proceeding involving the contributors. This doesn’t seem to be improper to the Wichita Business Journal. But it isn’t alone. The Wichita Eagle doesn’t object to any of this. Well, maybe once in a while it does, but not very strenuously or for very long.

Another problem: Wilson dismisses the claim that Longwell was able to exert much influence over the other six council members in order to benefit a project in his council district. But during the campaign, Longwell eagerly took credit for the good things that the city council did. Though Longwell was but one of seven votes, his commercials made it seem like he performed these deeds all by himself. But when things go wrong, well, he’s just one of seven votes.

The last fallacy Wilson objects to is this: “The idea that a $500 campaign contribution buys a vote, a specious claim by Americans for Prosperity that inexplicably lives on. If a council member’s vote is for sale for $500, their stupidity trumps their corruption. And yet some of these false claims remain in political advertising, despite being debunked by two media outlets — and here.”

A few points: First, it’s not just a $500 contribution. We find many examples of individual $500 contributions from executives of the same company, along with spouses and other family members. The contributions are effectively stacked. Second, sometimes campaigns are funded to a large extent by these stacked contributions from just one or two firms. 5 Third, if these contributions are not seen as valuable to those who make them, why do the same small groups of business interests make the maximum contributions year after year?

As far as the claims being debunked: A few weeks ago I showed you the inexplicably bad reporting from the Wichita Eagle. 6 The Business Journal didn’t do any better.

Wilson’s op-ed seems more like an audition for a job at city hall than a critical look at the campaign and its issues. Making a move from news media to a government job in communications is a common career move. There are three former journalists working in Wichita city hall. One former Wichita Eagle reporter went to work for the Wichita school district. There are many examples in Topeka. It’s a problem when journalists who are supposed to be exercising watchdog duty over government agencies end up working for them. We can also recognize when journalists are auditioning for jobs in government.

Lavonta Williams on the Wichita City Council

Here’s a timeline of events from the tenure of Lavonta Williams on the Wichita City Council. These are events related to cronyism and disrepect for the people of Wichita — except for her campaign contributors. For them, she voted for no-bid contracts and other taxpayer-funded largess. The behavior of Williams is one of the reasons that Wichita needs pay-to-play laws that prevent council members from voting to enrich their significant campaign contributors.

Williams timeline

Wichita drops taxpayer protection clause

To protect itself against self-defeating appeals of property valuation in tax increment financing districts, the City of Wichita once included a protective clause in developer agreements. But this consideration is not present in two proposed agreements.

When the Wichita Eagle reported that a downtown developer represented himself as an agent of the city in order to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, city officials were not pleased.

The property in question is located in a tax increment financing district. Incremental tax revenue from the property is earmarked for paying off bonds that were issued for the property’s benefit. If tax revenue is reduced from original projections — perhaps because the tax valuation was appealed — the tax revenue might be insufficient to pay the bonds. City taxpayers are then on the hook.

This is what happened, according to later Eagle reporting: “A special tax district formed by Wichita to assist in the development of the Old Town cinema project can’t cover its debt payments because the developers — including the city itself — petitioned a state court and got their property taxes reduced, records show.”

This week the Wichita city council considers approving a project plan for part of a TIF district in Old Town, the Mosley Avenue Project. It’s contained within the Old Town Cinema Redevelopment District, a tax increment financing (TIF) district. The developer is Mosley Investments, LLC, a development group comprised of David Burk and Steve Barrett, according to city documents.

The involvement of Burk and Barrett is problematic. The downtown developer who the Wichita Eagle said represented himself as an agent of the city without the city’s knowledge or consent was David Burk. Barrett was a partner on the project.

To protect itself when Burk was involved in another TIF-financed project in 2011, the city added language to the developer agreement that prevented appeals of tax valuation, although there was a large loophole included.

But for the Mosley project, there is no such language prohibiting appeals of tax valuation. For another TIF project plan the city will consider the same day, the Union Station project, there is also no such language.

A question posed to city hall but not yet answered is this: Is lack of taxpayer protection an oversight, or is it by design?

More importantly, who in city hall looking out for the interests of taxpayers? Could the generous campaign contributions of Burk and his wife be a factor in this missing taxpayer protection? Or the generous contributions of Key Construction and its executives? (Key Construction is frequently used by Burk.)

Past action by Burk on property in TIF district

In February 2010 the Wichita Eagle reported on the activities of Burk with regard to property he owns in Old Town. Citizens reading these articles might have been alarmed at his actions. Certainly some city hall politicians and bureaucrats were.

The opening sentence of the Wichita Eagle article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property) raises the main allegation against Burk: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

A number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s action. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams was not pleased, either: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In the most common form of a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high.

In response to Burk’s action, the city included a special provision in the agreement for a project in which Burk was involved the next year. This project is the Ambassador Hotel, known at the time as the Douglas Place project. This project is also located within a TIF district and receives the benefit of TIF financing. City documents explained that protests of taxes would not be allowed, but there is a loophole: “In addition, the Developer agrees not to protest the taxes on the building unless the valuation reflects a capitalization rate that exceeds the average rate for boutique hotels as determined by a nationally-recognized hotel appraisal firm.” (Wichita City Council agenda packet, September 13, 2011, page 26.) The agreement and the loophole were expressed in more detail in the agreement on page 138 of the same document.

At the time, city manager Layton told the Wichita Eagle that taxpayers would be protected in future deals: “We’ve taken several safeguards based on the city’s development experience over the last few years, as well as the advice from Goody Clancy and their business partners based on their experience.” He added “We think we’re set to encourage downtown development in a way that provides protection to the taxpayer.”

Now this week Dave Burk comes again before the city council asking for TIF money. But there appears to be nothing in the current agreement to protect taxpayers, as there was in the Douglas Place agreement.

Curiously, Burk is not mentioned by name in the documents prepared for the public hearing on January 6.

WichitaLiberty.TV: The need for reform at Wichita City Hall

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: An episode this week at the Wichita city council meeting highlights the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita. We’ll examine a few incidents and see if there’s a way we can reform Wichita city government so that it is capitalism friendly instead of crony friendly. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 69, broadcast December 21, 2014.

Campaign contribution stacking in Wichita

Those seeking favors from Wichita City Hall use campaign contribution stacking to bypass contribution limits. This has paid off handsomely for them, and has harmed everyone else.

Not long ago a person who is politically active wrote a letter that was published in the Wichita Eagle. It criticized the role of campaign contributions in federal elections, noting “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” Later the letter held this: “Locally, I understand that elections for the Wichita City Council underwent ideal, nonpartisan campaign-finance reform years ago, and that these limits are scrupulously practiced.”

The writer is correct, but only superficially. Our campaign contribution limits for city and school board offices are relatively small. What we find, however, is that the cronies, that is, the people who want stuff from city hall, stack contributions using family members and employees.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Here’s how a handful of cronies stack campaign contributions. In 2012 council members James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run again for their offices in spring 2013. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, two groups of related parties accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents for an entire year. A group associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000 — $4,000 to Williams, and $3,000 to Clendenin. Another group of people associated with movie theater owner Bill Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

The casual observer wouldn’t realize this stacking of campaign contributions by looking at campaign finance reports. That’s because for city offices, the name of the company a contributor works for isn’t required. Industry and occupation are required, but these aren’t of much help. Further, contribution reports are not filed electronically, so the information is not easy to analyze. Some reports are even submitted using handwriting, and barely legible handwriting at that.

So it’s not easy to analyze campaign contributions for Wichita city offices. It takes a bit of effort to unpack the stacking. You have to see a name and investigate who that person is. When you do that, you might find that a man from Valley Center who list his occupation and industry as Manager and Aviation Subcontractor is married to someone who lists her occupation and industry as Director of Marketing. Investigating her reveals that she is an executive of Key Construction.

That company, Key Construction, is a prominent company in Wichita. It is an example of a company that seeks to earn outsized profits through the political system rather than by meeting customer needs in the market. Profits through cronyism, that is. Here’s an example. In August 2011 the Wichita city council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Let me make sure you understand that. Mayor Carl Brewer, Lavonta Williams, and James Clendenin were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of your tax money to reward their benefactors through a no-bid contract. Since then reforms have been implemented to prevent this. Hopefully the reforms will work. I am skeptical.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted for no-bid contracts for Key.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted for no-bid contracts for Key.
In 2012 there was another incident involving Key Construction that show the need for campaign finance reform. Key and another construction company were engaged in a dispute as to who should build the new Wichita airport. The city council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner to decide the issue. Given all the campaign contributions Key was making at the time, and given the mayor’s well-known friendship with Dave Wells of Key Construction, can you guess who was awarded the contract? And can you guess whose contract was more expensive for taxpayers?

So back to the letter in the newspaper, which held: “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” I’m not going to defend cronyism at the federal level. It exists and it is harmful. But I would like to let the writer of the letter know that cronyism also exists in Wichita city government. In fact, it may be worse in Wichita. At the federal level, Congress usually passes laws that benefit an entire industry — say the sugar industry or banks — to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers. (Sometimes the benefits are quite specific. American Enterprise Institute reports that the just-passed omnibus bill contains a section that provides protection from an Obamacare provision for exactly one entity: Blue Cross Blue Shield. Conservative writer Yuval Levin explained: “This section is, simply put, a special favor for Blue Cross/Blue Shield allowing them to count ‘quality improvement’ spending as part of the medical loss ratio calculation required of them under Obamacare. And it’s made retroactive for four years, saving them loads of money.”)

That’s bad enough. Here in Wichita, however, the cronyism is more concentrated and personal. The links between campaign contributions and handouts from city hall is much more direct. We should insist that the city council stop picking the pocket of your fellow man so it can give the proceeds to campaign contributors. Campaign finance reform can help.

In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

  • The council voted to give a movie theater operator a no-interest and low-interest loan, after having already received the benefit of tax increment financing.
  • A minister dabbling in real estate development made a large contribution to his council representative just before he asked the city council for tax increment financing.
  • The council voted to give a construction company a no-bid contract for a parking garage. When later put out for competitive bid, the same company won the contract, but with a bid 21 percent less costly to taxpayers.
  • Executives of a Michigan construction company made contributions to the campaign of a city council member just before and after the council voted to give the company and its local partner a huge construction contract.
  • When a group of frequent campaign contributors wanted to win a contest for the right to build an apartment project, the city’s reference-checking process was a sham. City and other government officials were listed as references without their knowledge or consent, and none of the people listed as references were actually contacted.
  • A frequent campaign contributor, according to the Wichita Eagle, “represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city ‘s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza.” City officials expressed varying degrees of displeasure. But it wasn’t long before David Burk was receiving taxpayer subsidy again from the city council.
  • The council voted to grant $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness to frequent campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
What is the common thread running through these incidents? Council members have voted to enrich their significant campaign contributors. Each of these are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle has reported on some of these issues — sometimes in depth, sometimes in passing, but some have escaped notice. The editorial page of the newspaper sometimes takes notice, but is rarely critical of the council or mayor.

Third, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

Importantly: Will the Wichita city council prop up a competitor to my company with economic development incentives that place my company at severe disadvantage?

Wichita's mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
Wichita’s mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. This is because for Kansas municipal and school district elections, only personal contributions may be made. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses and children, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits. For two examples of how companies use family members, employees, and friends to stack up campaign contributions, see Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (up to the current limits) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, townships, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it collects valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election to let the people vote whether the ordinance should become law.

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Some incidents

warren-bailout-poses-dilemmaIn 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.
Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table compiled from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Of interest to current mayoral politics: In 2012 while Jeff Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

Michigan contractors headline 500These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Jeff Longwell vote to help Michigan CompanyThen on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

For Wichita’s Williams, $1.33 per month is too much

Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) is a supporter of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. She has also spoken of her concern for Wichita’s low-income families, as she did in November 2013 when the Wichita City Council voted to increase water rates. City documents indicated that the average residential bill would rise by $1.33 per month for those who use modest amounts of water.

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
According to the meeting minutes, Williams said this:

Council Member Williams stated she realizes that some may think that $1.33 is not that big of an increase, but for so many of our constituents, it is quite an increase for them especially those who are on a fixed income. Stated this is concerning to her and appreciates staff looking at all options and are kicking off a program that will help those who need assistance from the City. Stated she realizes as a City that we have to continue moving forward and look at our infrastructure.

I wonder: When Williams voted in favor of the Wichita sales tax ballot placement, did she understand that anyone who spends $133.00 per month on taxable purchases will see a $1.33 rise in their monthly sales tax expense? Recall that Kansas applies sales tax to food, although there is a possibility of receiving a rebate. The rebate is implemented through a nonrefundable income tax credit.

Here’s something else: Since Williams applauded the formation of a payment assistance program for those who can’t afford their water bills, I wonder if she will propose a similar program for those who can’t afford a higher sales tax?

For Wichita sales tax, concern over conflicts of interest

Supporters of a proposed sales tax in Wichita promise there will be no conflicts of interest when making spending decisions. That would be a welcome departure from present city practice.

"Yes Wichita" website.
“Yes Wichita” website.
In November Wichita voters will decide on a new one cent per dollar sales tax, part to be used for economic development, specifically job creation. “Yes Wichita” is a group that supports the sales tax. Language on its website reads: “Conflict-of-interest policies will prohibit anyone from participating in decisions in which there is any self-interest.” The page is addressing the economic development portion of the proposed sales tax. It’s part of an effort to persuade Wichita voters that millions in incentives will be granted based on merit instead of cronyism or the self-interest of politicians, bureaucrats, and committee members.

The problem is that while the city currently has in place laws regarding conflicts of interest, the city does not seem willing to observe them. If the proposed sales tax passes, what assurances do we have that the city will change its ways?

Following, from October 2013, is one illustration of Wichita city hall’s attitude towards conflicts of interest and more broadly, government ethics.

Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)

Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?

This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”

section-1106

No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.

At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.

2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.

The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.

(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)

I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?

While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Claims of future transparency of Wichita tax money spending

Claims by boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax that the city will be transparent in how money is spent must be examined in light of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. The city supports their refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes. What assurances do we have that they will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s blatant waste, Transforming Wichita, and how you can help

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Let’s ask that Wichita trim its blatant waste of tax dollars before asking for more. We’ll look back at a program called Transforming Wichita. Then: We need to hold campaigns accountable. I’ll give you examples why, and tell how you can help. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 57, broadcast September 7, 2014.

‘Transforming Wichita’ a reminder of the value of government promises

When Wichita voters weigh the plausibility of the city’s plans for spending proposed new sales tax revenue, they should remember this is not the first time the city has promised results and accountability.

Do you remember Transforming Wichita? According to the city, “Transforming Wichita is the journey by which we are fundamentally changing the way we measure, report and perform the work of delivering services to the citizens of Wichita.”

In more detail, the city website proclaimed: “TW is the journey by which we will be fundamentally changing the way we deliver services to the citizens of Wichita. Our vision is for Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play and for the city government to be a model of world class city governance where citizens receive the best possible value for their tax dollars and have confidence in their city government.”

At the end of this article I present the complete page from the city’s website as captured on November 10, 2007. That’s just seven years ago. There are officeholders (Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, City Council member Jeff Longwell, City Council member Lavonta Williams) and many bureaucrats still in office from that year. It’s not ancient history.

Some of the most frequently-mentioned concepts in this document are:

  • performance
  • accountability
  • trust
  • confidence
  • measure and report

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.
The document mentions “supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners.” That promise was made seven years ago. Today, do you know what you get when you ask the City of Wichita for spending records? The city can supply data of only limited utility. When I asked for spending records, what was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult — beyond the capability of most citizens — to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think the data would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

How does Wichita compare to other jurisdictions in this regard? Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites, having mastered this aspect of accountability and trust years ago. Not so the City of Wichita.

Speaking of websites: The new and “improved” wichita.gov website is actually less useful than the city’s website in 2007. For more on this see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Regarding performance: One of the most important functions city leaders say they perform is economic development, specifically the creation of jobs. Last year when the Wichita Eagle asked for job creation figures, it reported this:

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said.

One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. If the city had these figures available, it would be evidence of trustworthiness, performance, accountability, and measuring and reporting. But the city isn’t doing this.

Regarding values for dollars spent: During the past decade Wichita spent $247 million on the Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program, or ASR. As that project was contemplated, Wichita was told there was sufficient water for the next 50 years. We should ask: What value did we receive for those dollars?

Speaking of accountability: Much of the money used to pay for the ASR project was borrowed in the form of long-term debt. Now we are told that long-term borrowing to pay for a new water supply would be bad fiscal management. So was it was prudent and advisable to borrow over $200 million for water projects during the last decade? Who do we hold accountable for that decision, if what city leaders now say is correct?

Here’s a page from the city’s website as captured on November 10, 2007:

Transforming Wichita

Transforming Wichita is the journey by which we are fundamentally changing the way we measure, report and perform the work of delivering services to the citizens of Wichita. Our Vision:

  • For Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play (as envisioned in Visioneering Wichita).
  • For Wichita City government to be a model of world class city governance — where citizens are getting the best possible value for their dollars and the City has the public’s confidence and trust. For this vision to be attained, we have to adapt to change!

twWhile we are doing a lot of things right, we can’t be complacent, resting on our laurels from past successes. The paradox is that we must retain faith that the future is bright, while being willing to face challenges of our current situation. We must be willing to challenge every aspect of how we’re doing things today. We must position ourselves for the future.

We will do this by transforming City government into a high performance organization that:

  • Focuses on results
  • Understands what results matter most to their customers
  • Makes performance matter
  • Moves decision-making down and out to the front-line, closest to customers; and
  • Fosters an environment of excellence, inclusiveness, accountability, learning and innovation.

Through Transformation Wichita:

  • We deliver outstanding results that matter to our customers and are trustworthy stewards of the funds with which citizens have entrusted us;
  • We utilize team work and the best business processes, supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners;
  • We measure and report on our work, using a balanced scorecard that shows progress and results in how we carry out programs and activities, so that performance matters; and
  • We engage in work that produces results that matter for our customers; we will work with colleagues in an environment where learning enriches us and innovation expands our potential.

More about TW

TW is the journey by which we will be fundamentally changing the way we deliver services to the citizens of Wichita. Our vision is for Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play and for the city government to be a model of world class city governance where citizens receive the best possible value for their tax dollars and have confidence in their city government.

While the City is doing a lot of things right, we can’t be complacent. We must be willing to challenge every aspect of how we’re doing things today and position ourselves for the future.

We will accomplish this by transforming City government into a high performance organization that:

  • Delivers outstanding results that matter to our customers and is a trustworthy steward of the funds with which citizens have entrusted us;
  • We utilize team work and the best business processes, supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners;
  • We measure and report on our work, using processes that show progress and results in how we carry out programs and activities; and
  • We engage in work that produces results that matter for our customers.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Waste, economic development, and water issues.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichitans ought to ask city hall to stop blatant waste before it asks for more taxes. Then, a few questions about economic development incentives. Finally, how should we pay for a new water source, and is city hall open to outside ideas? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 53, broadcast July 27, 2014.

Wichita’s vampires and monsters

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Originally broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

For more on this issue, see “Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.”

For Wichita leaders, novel alternatives on water not welcome

A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.

This week Kansas Policy Institute held an educational form on the issues of water in the Wichita area. The event featured four presentations with questions and answers, with most being about one hour in length.

This was a welcome and important event, as the city is proposing to spend several hundred million dollars on an increased water supply. It is likely that citizens will be asked to approve a sales tax to pay this cost. It’s important that we get this right, and citizen skepticism is justified. The city has recently spent $247 million on a water project that hasn’t yet proved its value over a reasonably long trial. A former mayor has told audiences that he was assured Wichita had adequate water for the next 50 years. It was eleven years ago he was told that. Wichita’s current mayor has admitted that the city has not spent what was needed to maintain our current infrastructure, instead pushing those costs to the future.

Most of the information that Wichitans have access to is provided by city government. So when an independent group produces an educational event on an important topic, citizens might hope that Wichita city officials take part.

And, Wichita city officials did take part. The second of the four presentations was delivered by Wichita public works director Alan King and council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). City governmental affairs director Dale Goter and council member Lavonta Williams were in the audience.

But after this presentation ended, the four city officials left.

What did they miss? They missed two additional presentations, or half the program. The city officials did not hear a presentation by Dr. Art Hall of Kansas University which presented novel ideas of using markets for water resources. Particularly, how Wichita could secure increased water supply by purchasing water rights and using the infrastructure it already has in place.

In the final presentation, the audience asked questions that the presenter was not able to answer. City officials like public works director King would have been able to provide the answers.

I understand that city council members are part-time employees paid a part-time salary. Some have outside jobs or businesses to run. But that’s not the case with the city’s public works director or its governmental affairs director.

Come to think of it, where was the city manager? Assistant city manager? Other council members? The city’s economic development staff?

Where was Mayor Carl Brewer?

If you’ve attended a city council meeting, you may have to sit through up to an hour of the mayor issuing proclamations and service awards before actual business starts. Fleets of city bureaucrats are in the audience during this time.

But none of these would spend just one hour listening to a presentation by a university professor that might hold a solution to our water supply issue.

I understand that city officials might not be the biggest fans of Kansas Policy Institute. It supports free markets and limited government.

But city officials tell us that they want to hear from citizens. The city has gone to great lengths to collect input from citizens, implementing a website and holding numerous meetings.

About 70 people attended the KPI forum. Citizens were interested in what the speakers had to say. They sat politely through the presentation by the two city officials, even though I’m sure many in the audience were already familiar with the recycled slides they’d seen before.

But it appears that Wichita city officials were not interested in alternatives that weren’t developed by city hall. They can’t even pretend to be interested.

Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.

Public service announcements on Facebook and Wichita City Channel 7 urge Wichitans to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation.

Public service announcement crawler on Wichita's cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
Public service announcement crawler on Wichita’s cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
People are probably vaguely aware that many modern electrical and electronic devices consume electricity even when switched off. One source estimates that a cell phone charger consumes 0.26 watts of electrical power even when a phone is not plugged in. While in sleep mode, a flat panel computer display consumes 1.39 watts. A clock radio uses 2.01 watts. A microwave oven while not in use and with its door closed uses 3.08 watts. (These are average values.) A large Samsung smart television on standby uses 0.3 watts.

While appearing to be wasteful, this “vampire” power consumption often has a benefit. If you unplug your clock radio when you leave for work in the morning, you save a few dozen watts of power. But, you have to reset the clock when you want to use it again. If I unplug my Samsung smart television, I’ll probably have to reprogram it to my preferences. If I want save the power my microwave oven wastes, I’ll have to wrench my back lifting it out of the way so I can reach the outlet it plugs in to. That action, naturally, unleashes a cloud of dust bunnies to dirty my counters and floor.

Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding "vampire" power waste.
Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding “vampire” power waste.
Nonetheless, the City of Wichita uses its Facebook page and cable television network to urge its citizens take steps like these in order to save small amounts of electricity.

How much electricity do you suppose a city street light consumes? It depends on the type of light, but common street lights use from 100 to 200 watts. During the hours when the sun does not shine, we’re generally willing to pay for that in order to obtain the benefits of lighted streets and sidewalks.

But when street lights are burning in the middle of a day, they provide absolutely no value. Street lights turned on during the day provide none of the convenience of “vampire” power usage, such as not needing to reset your clocks and move your microwave oven every day.

Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
So while the City of Wichita uses its television channel to hector citizens into adding inconvenience to their lives in order to save vanishingly small amounts of electricity, the city apparently has no misgivings about using large amounts of electricity to needlessly illuminate the noonday sky, week after week.

As I’ve shown, the city often has street lights turned on at noon on days with no clouds in the sky. (See here for examples.) Yesterday dozens of city street lights were turned on at 2:30 in the afternoon on a sunny day for many blocks in downtown Wichita. This is not an isolated mistake. It is a pattern. (Even if it is cloudy and raining, the street lights add no discernible illumination during daylight.)

There’s something else. Each of us can choose the balance between “vampire” power waste and inconvenience based on our own values. If we choose to use “vampire” power in order to add convenience to our lives, we have to pay for it.

Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
But the Wichita city hall bureaucrats who burn street lights in the noonday sun week after week are spending your money, not theirs.

(Yes, city hall bureaucrats pay taxes to the city just like you and I, so their tax money is also wasted. But because the cost of this waste is spread over the entire city, the motivation for any one person to take steps to eliminate the waste is small. Especially if, like a city hall bureaucrat would, you’d have to actually work in order to achieve savings. But these same bureaucrats and politicians urge you to work harder in your home in order to save small amounts of “vampire” electricity.)

The wasteful expenditures on street lights I’ve been illustrating for several weeks are located in districts of the city represented by Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams. Both express concern for the environment and criticize the purported harm man has caused the earth by emitting greenhouse gases. Here’s an opportunity for them to act on their beliefs.

WichitaLiberty.TV: The harm of cronyism, local and national

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does Wichita have a problem with cronyism? The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say no, but you can decide for yourself. Then, from LearnLiberty.org, the harm of cronyism at the national level. Episode 48, broadcast June 22, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.